Discovery VR: Great Videos All Around

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Drop cameras and crew members into the water, and you get a great look at the ocean without getting wet. Photo courtesy of Discovery Communications
Drop cameras and crew members into the water, and you get a great look at the ocean without getting wet. Photo courtesy of Discovery Communications

It’s easy to get caught up in the stories of jaw-dropping VR experiences. Tilt Brush for the HTC Vive, for instance. Or, really, anything for the HTC Vive. So it seems to those of us with lesser headsets.

But VR offers a huge range of experiences, and it’s easy to overlook the power of something as simple as 360-degree video. It’s highly immersive in its own right, and you don’t need fancy VR gear to view it. You don’t even always need a headset. And the world is full of amazing sights to see; you just have to plop a camera in the right spot.

When it comes to plopping those cameras, few are as experienced as Discovery Communications and Discovery Channel, which routinely bring viewers into remote or interesting spots around the globe. So I was excited when I saw an announcement that Temple Gates Games, whose Ascension VR game we mentioned last month, had worked with Discovery to build an interface on Oculus and the Gear VR for the popular channel’s catalog of 360 videos. (Take that, Vive owners!)

In addition to the Oculus and Gear apps that Temple Gates did, apps exist for iOS and Android. You can also use your Google Cardboard headset. Or you can use the panning abilities of your browser. No matter which route you choose, you’re going to find a wide range of original content. Some of it is tied to the shows that have made Discovery famous, some of it is VR-specific content, such as a mystery named The Satchel that I’ve yet to watch.

A portion of the Discovery VR interface. Photo courtesy of Discovery Communications.
A portion of the Discovery VR interface. Photo courtesy of Discovery Communications.

My own favorites? It’s hard to argue with this Mythbusters shoot using a camera in a teeming eddy of reef sharks. Or this freeboarding run down San Francisco’s sinuous Lombard Street. But I’ve watched a dozen or so of these, and it’s always tons of fun. And I’ve been able to show some to my young daughter, who is developing a curiosity about marine biology, diving, drones, and many other subjects DiscoveryVR covers. New videos are showing up regularly, so it’s always worth coming back.

My friend Theresa Duringer is the co-founder of Temple Gates, and she was kind enough to answer my questions about the challenges Temple Gates faced while developing this app. As a nascent VR developer, it was an interesting peek behind the VR veil and the difficulty of creating a usable UI in this new-to-the-masses medium.

“In the real world, your best focal point is in front of your eyes, with a drop off in vision accuracy toward the periphery. Most VR headsets right now don’t have eye-tracking capability, so the best way to determine your viewer’s gaze is by using the accelerometer in the headset to determine the orientation of their head. From that, you can assume they’re probably looking directly ahead, especially since VR optics currently serve the most clear content in the center of the field of view. Because of this, we fixed the viewer’s cursor directly in the center of their gaze, effectively making the viewer’s entire head their mouse.”

“One of the paradoxes of VR is that even though you have theoretically infinite screen space to work with, there’s actually a fairly limited region in center-screen that’s viable for text display. Additionally, because of the current technology resolutions, text font sizes need to be larger relative to other digital media to be legible.”

“At the same time, these bits of text are appearing on thumbnails for videos. These thumbnails display in grid, and you want to display as many of them on screen as possible to reduce pagination fatigue. If you make the text very large, the thumbnails that contain them must also be large. The problem is, there’s a finite range of how much viewers are willing to pivot their neck from their resting gaze position before it becomes uncomfortable.”

What’s your favorite Discovery VR film? Let us know in the comments.

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